Monday, November 28, 2011

Improv for Writers, Part 3 of 3:Speed Writer--a Lesson Plan for a Writers' Conference

I sometimes like to imagine giving a class at a SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference. I have a long list of things I’d like to teach, and one of them is Improv for writers. Here’s my lesson plan for that class.

1. Hand out the information from my two previous blog posts on Improv: “How Improv Can Help You Write Better, Faster, and More Creatively“ and “Mind Games: Five Solitaire Games for Fiction Writers,” as well as recommendations for further reading. In each hand out, include an index card with the name of a well-known children’s book character, like Harry Potter or Clifford the big red dog: a different name on each card. There should be a note on it about not showing your card to the other people in the class. Also hand out several small pieces of paper that might be used later for suggestions. (Each handout should be attached with a paper clip. Bring a hat for scenes-from-a-hat type games. Also bring in a well-known children’s book, like The Cat in the Hat or Guess How Much I Love You, and a box that can be opened and closed.)

2. If there isn’t a space at the front of the room, ask everyone to help me make a space.

3. Ask “What is Improv?” Explain that Improv requires players to come up with ideas and scenes on the spot and that following the rules of Improv can help writers not only come up with lots of ideas fast but write faster and better. Explain that the most important words in Improv are “Yes, and . . .” Explain how this affects a story, that it lets the story move forward. Explain that we will be playing several Improv games that deal with voice, emotion, character, raising the stakes, coming up with story ideas, revision, and if we have enough time, using all your senses. There’s a lot to learn from Improv, and it takes most people months or years to hone the craft. We’ll do our best to cram as much as we can into the time we have.

The Games

(Remember to finish each game on a high note, so the excitement doesn’t wane.)

1. It’s How You Say It (3-5 minutes)

This game is all about voice. Ask for three volunteers to come to the front of the class. Tell them they’re going to read from the children’s book you brought with you, but they’re going to change the way they read it according to the emotions or characteristics I call out.  Here are some of the things you can try: angry, shy, surfer dude, bored, nervous, confused, in song, mafia hit man, giggling, suspicious, and overjoyed.  Ask the audience for suggestions too. After the game, ask what was the most fun. Was it an unexpected voice for reading that particular story? A surprising voice is usually more fun.  

2. I Gotta Feeling (20 seconds or less per person so it’s under 10 minutes, I hope)

This game is about embracing emotions. It’s like the first game but with adlibbing, and it’s for everyone. A box gets passed around a room along with a reaction to what’s in the box (the box is actually empty, but players can make up what they find in the box). Tell the players they must react to what’s in the box based on the kind of reaction I will give them. They need to pay attention, because the reaction can change at any time and I could ask for the box to be passed at any time. Pass the box around and call out reactions, like anger, angrier, angriest, indifferent, delighted, overjoyed, confused, perplexed, distraught, like, love, passion, bored, more bored, bored out of your mind, sarcastic, very sarcastic, scared, terrified, with apprehension, anxious, hopeful, jealous, proud, sleepily, reverently, and so on. After the game, ask which reaction the group thought was best. Why was it best? Was it very specific? Was it heightened? It’s usually best to vary the level of the emotions in your writing between five and nine with an occasional ten. That lets the tens stick out.

3. Character Conference (10-15 minutes)

This game is about creating characters. Ask for one volunteer, preferably someone who’s read a lot of children’s books. Everyone else should look at the index card they got with the name of a well-known children’s book character. They should stand until the volunteer correctly guesses who they are. Then they can sit down. The volunteer has to mingle at the character conference and try to figure out who everyone else is by asking questions. Everyone else needs to be their character without saying his or her name, the title of their book, or the names of other characters. They should try to feed hints to the volunteer without giving things away. If the volunteer gets stuck and a person playing a character isn’t helpful, other characters can mingle with that character until it’s obvious who that character is.  

4. What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (5-10 minutes)

This game is about story middles and raising the stakes. Ask for three to five volunteers. Ask everyone else for an activity. One person plays the main character and is given a goal related to the activity (like write a great novel, win a race, buy a toy, and so on). When I clap, the main character has to say, “What could possibly go wrong?” One of the other characters then needs to step in and raise the stakes by presenting obstacles related to the goal (make it clear that it has to be related to the goal and not some random obstacle) or by giving a reason why the thing the main character wants is now something he truly needs. The main character has to work to overcome these obstacles. This illustrates how to raise the stakes and how this increases tension and audience interest. Point out Murphy’s Law for fiction writers: If anything can go wrong (for your main character), it should.

5. The Untold Story (10-15 minutes)

This is about using old stories to create something new. Before doing this game, explain that Improv can be used to change an existing story and make it something new by changing the who, what, why, where, when, or how of the original story. The how is about how the story is told, like the style or the genre. Ask for a genre, like paranormal romance, murder mystery, Doctor Seuss, Star Wars, or evening news. Have each person write down on a scrap of paper something they associate with that genre, like if it’s mystery, the word could be detective or gun. Collect the pieces of paper and put them in a hat. Next have the group pick a well-known fairy tale. Ask for one volunteer who’s a really good storyteller. Take two more volunteers. The first volunteer has to narrate the untold story of the fairy tale in the chosen style or genre. The other two have to act out what the narrator says and come up with their own dialogue. The narrator in turn has to incorporate what the characters are saying and doing into the story. Every once in a while the narrator says, “That’s what everyone thinks happened, but what really happened is the character said . . .” The chosen character reaches into the hat and says a line that incorporates whatever is written on the piece of paper that character draws out. All players should try to make sense of and incorporate whatever it is into the story. When the game is over, ask how many variations of Romeo and Juliet the group knows. And what about Cinderella? What’s changed in those variations? Is it the who, what, where, or how? What other changes can they think of to either of those classics that haven’t been done yet?

6. Work for Hire (about 5 minutes)

This game is a fun game about being flexible and open to revision. Only do it if you have extra time, which isn’t likely. Everyone in the class has to pretend they each have a chance to get hired to write the next book in the hugely successful Happy, Happy Princess series, but they need to prove they can work with an editor. Point at one player and ask him to pitch his story idea for a Happy, Happy Princess book. After about 30 seconds say, “Stop right there. That’s good, but we’re thinking of taking Happy, Happy Princess in a new direction.” Make suggestions for a possible change (different character traits, different setting, different actions, different genres. and so on). “Give me what you got.” After the first person is finished, ask, “Anyone else?” After that person gives me her pitch, I switch the suggestion again. It could be something like “Comic books are really popular, so we want you to give Happy, Happy Princess a superpower” or “We’ve decided to kill off this character, but keep it happy” or “This story needs a werewolf” or “We think we could get a Star Wars tie in, so stick Yoda or Darth Vader into the story.”  This game ends after someone gives a really great pitch.

7. Story Settings (about 10 minutes)

This game reminds writers to think of the five senses when they write. It’s more educational than fun, but it could be a good way to wind things down. Have everyone walk around the room. Call out settings, and have the other writers react as if they’re in that setting. They need to react with all their senses: sound, sight, touch, taste, smell. Their reaction should be apparent in the way they walk, their posture, how they hold their noses, the way they move their hands, and of course the expressions on their faces. Among the settings to use are a crime investigation scene, a beach on the hottest day of summer, a garden in Wonderland, a kindergarten classroom, a funeral, and a space ship.  When the game is over, ask what people heard, saw, touched, tasted and smelled. How can they use this game in their own writing?


Improv can teach writers a lot, but perhaps the most important thing it teaches is how to overcome fear. There's no time for fear when you're performing Improv.

When Tina Fey began working at Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels told her, "Don't worry that it's going to be crap, because it's definitely going to be crap." Isn't that freeing? No one expects you to get the first draft perfect, so don't even try. Just have fun.

You have to take a leap of faith in yourself. Pick a genre and a starting point, create your characters, give your main character a goal, and raise the stakes. Don't ask yourself if it's crap, because it's definitely going to be crap. Just accept it and let your imagination go wild. Remember, you do have one advantage over an Improv actor: you can always edit your story later.

Improv opens up your choices in all areas of writing. You can always rewind and do a scene again and again until it's just the way you want it. Sometimes writers are paralyzed by having too many options. Don't be. Pretend it's Improv. Give yourself 30 seconds. Make a choice, take a leap, and find out where it takes you. 

And now, three books on Improv:

101 Improv Games for Children and Adults--just what the title says, this book has lots of fun games of varying difficulty and for varying group sizes.

The Ultimate Improv Book: A Complete Guide to Comedy Improvisation--this book is mostly for those who wish to teach Improv in a high school setting, but it does include some fun games and a lot of information on the skills required to do Improv well.

Truth in Comedy--this book was written by some of the people who originated Improv as it exists today. It gets to the heart of what makes Improv great, and it’s fun to read.

I hope you've enjoyed this series on Improv for writers. Please feel free to use the comments section below to let me know your thoughts or ask any questions. And if you're a conference organizer and you're interested in having me teach a class, drop me an email. I'd love to hear from you.


Jo Ramsey said...

Great post and series, Shevi. I'm bookmarking so I can reread these.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

I will mention this post in a blog entry on (where I post on Tuesdays and other widely published writers post other days) - on Amateur Goes Professional.

This is a very inspiring post, especially coming during nanowrimo.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

cleemckenzie said...

I love the idea of Improv to kick start writing. I'll be teaching two workshops this spring: pre-teen and then teen. I'll definitely be trying out some Improv games to generate writing and keep the interest high during the workshop.


Shevi said...

Thanks, Jo!

Thanks, Jacqueline, especially for the mention! I will check out your blog.

Thanks, C. Lee!